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Once you’ve started down the path to thoughtfully evaluating a wine’s appearance, smell, and taste, you’ll want to consider the French concept of terroir. While there is no precise English translation for the word, it is an Old World belief that the quality of the wine is determined by the type of soil that the vines grow in (chalky, claylike, gravelly, or sandy), the land’s topography (altitude, angle of incline, and water drainage) and the macroclimate. Jancis Robertson, a renowned expert on wine, explains that terroir imparts unique characteristics to wines that are more or less consistent year to year, regardless of grape-growing and winemaking techniques. The New World vintners in Oregon are true believers when it comes to the notion that great wine is grown, not made. “Once you are here, you begin to have a sense of how important terroir is to the results of our wines,” says Rob Stuart of Oregon’s Erath Vineyards. “As winemakers, we try not to ruin what Mother Nature has given us. The true winemakers are those that grow the grapes, and listen to what nature tells them, to produce the best fruit from their site.” Stuart, who has a degree in biochemistry, says their vines are planted in the Dundee Hills of the northern Willamette Valley. The area’s most common soil type is called Jory. These soils are volcanic in origin and have a high percentage of red clay. He says the wine from the region typically displays aromas of red fruits, black cherry, and raspberry and spice. Stuart makes reserve quality pinot noirs from single vineyards in extremely limited quantities of 100 to 500 cases each. I tasted a single-vineyard wine, the Erath Vineyards Leland Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Reserve 1998 ($35). This wine has a wonderful, sweet aroma. Black cherry and currant flavors swirl around and then offer up a bit of spice. It has a light to medium body. This balanced and complex wine gently arches on the finish. Witness Tree Vineyard, also in the Willamette Valley, grows 30 acres of pinot noir in the Eola Hills. The most common soil type here is called Nekia. This volcanic soil is shallower, generally one to three feet in depth, and has less clay than Dundee Hills. This means that the soil dries sooner, encouraging earlier ripening of the fruit. The wines produced in this area typically possess aromas of black fruits, black cherry, plum and cassis, with acidity levels naturally higher than in other growing areas. Good acidity is essential in a pinot noir to bring out the fruit notes, and it contributes to a sense of structure in the mouth. This winery produced only 512 cases of the Witness Tree Vintage Select Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 1998 ($40), which is aged in new French oak barrels for 10-1/2 months. Wooden casks contribute to subtleties and complexities that we can taste and smell. The choice of a type of oak barrel can also have an influence on the flavor and style of the wines. This wine has black cherry and violet aromas and flavors that round nicely on the palate. A perfect balance of tannins and acids results in a clean, full-bodied texture — but it doesn’t have the complexity of an Erath pinot noir. Cristom Vineyards is just to the south of Witness Tree. The Cristom Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Reserve 1998 ($42) is fashioned from a blend of 11 different vineyard sites, with 78 percent of the grapes coming from Emola Hills. Winemaker Steve Doerner believes that a great pinot noir has a lot of weight and body. This is a well-crafted and complex wine with cherry, vanilla, and cassis flavors. It has depth and a lot of intensity on the finish. The distinguished burgundy house Maison Joseph Drouhin has its own vineyard in Oregon, situated on a slope facing south, in the Red Hills of the Willamette Valley, 30 miles southwest of Portland. Veronique Drouhin, a fourth-generation winemaker, travels to Oregon several months of the year to make pinot noir from 80 acres of grapes. She says that the 1998 vintage tops all her previous favorites. Her Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir 1998 ($40) has aromas of cherry, spice, and white pepper. The wine is silky, rich, and fruit-forward and has a delightfully long finish. To the extent that terroir is more than a fanciful idea, let us hope that the Oregon winemakers continue to believe in the philosophy. Elisabeth Frater is the co-author of a wine-inspired online novel, “A Red With Legs,” at http://www.darkwoman.com/. If you have comments or suggestions for future tastings, contact [email protected]

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